Under grey, bleak skies, the SV Silurian sliced through the waters off Skye’s Neist Point Lighthouse on what everyone on board suspected would be another futile search for Scotland’s elusive old men of the sea.

On deck, Dr Natalie Sanders kept watch, eyes peeled for a glimpse of a distinctive dorsal fin and the unlikely sighting of a dying breed.

Catching a glance of Scotland’s illusive west coast orcas – a dwindling group that makes up Britain and Ireland’s only resident pod - is a challenge that has eluded some Hebridean whale spotters all their lives.

Seeing them would be more than a stroke of luck - it would, Dr Sanders now says, be a blessing.

“I saw one dorsal fin, and it was a natural instinct to shout ‘Sighting! Orca!,” she recalls. “Everyone scrambled for their binoculars, but then they disappeared and I felt really embarrassed. What if I was mistaken?”

Moments later, it appeared again, this time with a second fin following alongside.

“It was absolutely breathtaking,” she adds. “Inside I was squealing with excitement but at the same time this stillness came over me. We just watched them, and it was beautiful.”

The special moment is recalled in a new book in which the marine biologist documents the fascinating lives, devastating losses and impending death of the small West Coast Community of orcas.

Thought to have travelled to the Hebrides from Antarctica and once thought to number at least ten, they live entirely separate from Northern Isles Community based off Orkney and Shetland and ‘Viking’ visitors from Iceland and beyond.

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But a lack of recent sightings of the Hebrides-based pod has raised fears that just two now remain.

Elderly males with just each other for companions, in contrast to their species’ harsh reputation as voracious killers, the pair - dubbed Joe Coe and Aquarius – have been spotted in unusual locations around the British Isles, from Cornwall to Peterhead.

That has led marine scientists to suspect they may be on a heart-wrenching search for their now lost family.

As time passes, the inevitable will occur, and the unique west coast family with their own individual characteristics, feeding habits, and behaviour which has led them to be widely recognised as a species within a species, will be gone forever.

“Their fate is sealed and there is not a lot we can do to save them,” says Dr Sanders. “But we can continue to learn from them and use that to help protect others.”

Their individual stories – from matriarch Nicola, who would by now be in her seventies if, and it’s thought unlikely, she is still alive, to Lulu, found dead on a beach in Tiree and discovered to be the world’s most polluted whale - are explored in the book, alongside details of other orcas around the world and an exploration of the multiple challenges facing the species.

Despite their fierce reputation as ruthless killers who attack for pleasure, the book highlights the species’ remarkably complex characteristics, revealing orcas as deeply sentient creatures, intelligent, playful and capable of a surprisingly touching emotional depth; grieving, forming friendships and displaying love, affection and loyalty.

From apex predators at the top of the food chain and with nothing to fear, they are now among its vulnerable marine dwellers at risk from becoming tangled in fishing nets, disorientated by underwater sonar affecting their ability to hunt, the scourge of plastic and a changing climate.

That was confirmed when one of the pod, Lulu, was found washed up on Crossapol, a rocky beach on Tiree, in January 2016.

Thought to be around 30 years old, her cause of death seemed obvious: she was found with severe lacerations on her tail and fishing line marks so heavy that they had left permanent imprints.

Experts concluded she had suffered horribly from having heavy fishing line and rope wrapped around her tail.

“The extra drag created from all this extra weight would have meant her swimming would have been severely hampered and she would not have been able to hunt properly. It is likely that she died a long, slow death from starvation and exhaustion,” explains Dr Sanders in her book, The Last Sunset in the West: Britain’s Vanishing West Coast Orcas.

With no rope or nets on her when she was found, another clue to her sad demise would become clear when her body was sliced open and the contents of her stomach revealed.

“The necropsy confirmed her stomach and intestines were empty. She hadn’t eaten for at least several days,” she adds.

“It also confirmed that she had swallowed a lot of water, a sign that she was struggling to stay afloat as she became exhausted, gulping in mouthfuls of water in her desperation.

“What an incredibly sad end for such an amazing creature.”

Further investigations revealed an even more distressing link to her and, ultimately, the West Coast Community’s demise.

Lulu had never been pregnant, raising suspicions that in-breeding within the community was at a level unprecedented in any other orca population.

While that seemed to explain why the family of orcas had never been seen with a calf, analysis of Lulu’s blood and tissue by the Zoological Society of London revealed an exceptionally high level of toxic ‘polychlorinated biphenyls’ or PCBs, in her tissues.

Now banned but once widely used in coolants in electrical equipment, plastic products, paints and rubber products, PCBs are carcinogenic, affect the auto-immune system and have been linked with infertility.

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While the discovery of Lulu’s body has helped boost understanding of the issues facing orcas which explore Scottish waters and around the world, mystery remains over the rest of the West Coast Community pod, including Comet, one of the two orcas spotted by Dr Sanders on that day in 2104.

Identifiable by his tall dorsal fin featuring a distinctive wave and a small nick towards the tip, he made headlines in Northern Ireland in 1977 after suddenly appearing in the River Foyle.

Dr Sanders’ 2014 sighting while with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), a small charity based in Tobermory on Mull, on board their vessel, Silurian, was the last time Comet was seen.

Another member of the pod, a male called Moon, was found stranded in 2015 with a broken jaw, thought to have been the result of a collision with a vessel.

With just John Coe and Aquarius having been sighted in recent times, it is inevitable that time is running out for the West Coast pod.

“We can hope,” adds Dr Sanders. “The ocean is a big place but our orcas would now be in their 60s and 70s, they are incredibly old.

While it is brilliant that we have had them for so long, they are coming to the end of their lives.

“Joe Coe and Aquarius have been popping up all over the place. In recent years they have been seen in Cornwall, in the Channel, in Peterhead; places they’ve never been seen before.

“They don’t have the rest of the group with them, and it’s complete speculation, but I can’t help but feel they are searching wildly, scouring the coastline looking for more of their kind.

“It’s anyone’s guess what might have happened to the rest of them,” she adds. “Chances are they died of old age and just sank to the sea floor.

“I feel incredibly blessed to have seen them once. Many people spend their entire life trying to see them.

“But it is devastating that we are at the point where they are almost gone.”

The Last Sunset in the West: Britain’s Vanishing West Coast Orcas is published by Sandstone Press on 9 March.